An electrifying mutual aid project helping 13,000 on Navajo Nation get power

CHINLE, Ariz. — It had been months since Jamie Shorty’s generator went out. Her family had adapted to life without it. In the mornings, before the sun came up, she would wake up her young sons by flashlight. The oldest, age 11, would walk carefully out to the family’s diesel truck, illuminating his path with the light on his smartphone to avoid rattlesnakes hidden in the desert brush. After he started the truck, he walked back inside to strike a match and light the stove to warm a pot of water. In a couple of hours’ time — depending on the season — the sunrise would pour through the windows, giving the family light to go about their day until sunset.

During the winter months, darkness enveloped the house by 5 p.m., and Jamie would stand over the kitchen table holding her phone to provide light as the brothers poured over their homework.

The Shortys were one of 13,500 Diné families living on the Navajo Nation without electricity.

But on the morning of June 6, 2023, that changed. With newly installed electricity, the family’s morning started with Jamie turning on the lights and making her sons breakfast.

“I just woke up and made biscuits,” Jamie said. “I wasn’t able to do that before.”

This summer, thanks to a nationwide mutual aid effort called, Light Up Navajo, the Shorty family became one of 159 Navajo households hooked up to electricity for the very first time. Light Up Navajo, now in its fourth year, spans 11 weeks each spring and summer, kicking off in early April and wrapping up in the last week of July. It began in 2019 as a collaboration between the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and the American Public Power Association, a coalition of nonprofit, community-owned utilities across the U.S. Light Up Navajo sought to utilize a mutual aid model — an organizational theory that leverages communal work and pooled resources to solve community needs — to rally volunteer linemen and resources from around the country to expedite the process of hooking up Navajo households to the electrical grid.

With nearly 400,000 enrolled members, the Navajo Nation has the second-largest membership of 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, behind the Cherokee Nation. The largest reservation in the U.S., it spans 27,000 square miles, encompassing parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Currently, 160,000 Navajo live on the reservation. It’s roughly the size of West Virginia.

Lack of electricity exacerbates disparities that have long had a foothold in Indian Country, driven by a federal legacy of forced removal and assimilation, the U.S. government’s neglect of treaty agreements, and systemic apathy for Native Americans living on reservations.

For the Navajo families living without electricity, daily life is complicated. Many keep food in camping coolers packed with ice bought from one of just 13 full-service grocery stores on the reservation. Some use generators, especially if a family member has medical needs that require medicine to be kept at certain temperatures.

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A Navajo elder gets electricity for the first time. (Photo/NTUA)

Long drives are something people living on the Navajo Nation are used to. Across the Nation’s 16 million acres, towns are infrequent. Gas stations often double as laundromats. Without electricity to pump water from wells, it’s not uncommon for citizens to drive up to hours away to fill 250-gallon plastic barrels with water for cooking, cleaning and drinking. The NTUA — the multi-utility owned by the tribe — estimates 17,000 homes on the Nation lack running water.

School children, who can spend hours a day on the bus riding to and from school, have limited time to study and complete homework before dark or must study by flashlight like the Shortys. Without electricity to charge their devices or access the internet, along with the mental and emotional strain of daily life without basic utilities, they often fall farther and farther behind their peers.

Who’s hooking up electricity?

Within six weeks of Light Up Navajo’s initial kickoff in 2019, 120 volunteer crews from 25 public power companies hooked up 233 homes on the Nation to electricity. While COVID-19 restrictions caused the project’s participation rate to wane in 2021 — it was canceled in 2020 —this year brought in 176 volunteer linemen from 26 publicly owned utilities across the United States.

Light Up Navajo is promoted to utilities in collaboration with the American Public Power Association. The utilities that sign up offer the opportunity to their staff. In the four years since Light Up Navajo started, more than 550 volunteer electrical workers have hooked up 662 Diné families to electricity.

The project is advertised on social media and the radio to encourage families to sign up. Eligibility is determined by need and feasibility.

Hooking up between 150-230 homes a year to electricity may seem like slow progress with 13,500 households in need, but every house hooked up to the grid is life-changing for the Navajo families that occupy them.

How it started

On the Navajo Nation, sprawling fields of muted desert brush are punctuated with splashes of neon orange and purple desert flowers as towering red sandstone mesas rise out of the expanse. It’s hard to believe the massive sky is the same one that covers the rest of the United States and its cities — one can feel the heat of the sun unyielded by clouds while watching the rain fall from the sky miles away.

In Chinle, Arizona — one of the towns where volunteers are deployed to construct electrical poles and lines during week six of Light Up Navajo — lies the entrance to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The 83,000-acre canyon has been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. It is also the site where a pivotal moment in Navajo history began. Known today as the Long Walk, between 1863 and 1866, the U.S. Army, in its relentless campaign of Indian removal and westward expansion, forced nearly 10,000 Navajo to trek more than 300 miles from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner in present-day New Mexico. Hundreds died from starvation and exposure. Once in Fort Sumner, the survivors were interned in a 40 square mile area without water or provisions.

In 1868, Navajo leaders negotiated with the U.S. government resulting in the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, which allowed the surviving Navajo to return to a portion of their homeland, establishing the Navajo Nation reservation.

Today, Canyon de Chelly attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year from around the globe; in 2022, the canyon saw 350,000 visitors, according to the National Parks Service. Forty Navajo families still live in the canyon, their homes on the vast canyon floor just visible from the viewing platforms made for tourists on the top rim.

Survival has long been central to Navajo life, said Deenise Becenti, government and public affairs manager for NTUA.

“If a nuclear bomb went off, the Navajo would still be here,” she said. “We survive. It’s what we do.”

Becenti is Navajo and grew up in To’Hajiilee on the New Mexico side of the reservation. As a little girl, she “dreamed of becoming Barbara Walters” and ran around with a tape recorder, pretending to be a journalist named “Dee Dee Johnson.” After earning a BFA in communications from the University of New Mexico in 1985, Becenti landed a job as a radio news anchor at KTNN, the only radio station on the Navajo Nation. While she moved on from the station in 2001 to work at NTUA, people still recognize her voice today.

Some of the moments Becenti has witnessed in the four years of Light Up Navajo are emblematic of how a seemingly simple utility like electricity can transform someone’s life in a matter of moments.

She remembered an older woman in her 90s who was hooked up to electricity by volunteer crews two weeks earlier. When crews switched the breaker on to electrify her house, the woman was overcome with emotion, sobbing when she realized she wouldn’t have to use a generator for the continuous oxygen she depended on.

She recalls another family with young children who were thrilled to finally experience a staple ritual of summertime: eating ice-cold popsicles straight from the freezer. This, Becenti says, is part of what keeps her here.

“In Navajo, we have this kinship,” Becenti explained. “We are related to one another through the clan systems. A lot of people I am related to and people that I know don’t have electricity… that is part of what keeps me here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. This is home.”

The average Navajo family lives on homesteads – collections of dwellings on a plot of land where families live multi-generationally. On a drive around the Nation’s Chinle and Dilkon districts, following the path of electrical crews from Colorado, Utah and North Carolina, who are constructing electrical lines for Light Up Navajo, Beccenti points them out. Most of the homesteads have hogans, a traditional dwelling characterized by round walls and low roofs that are used for ceremonies. All of the homes, she said, face east to greet the rising sun in honor of Father Sun, a holy figure in the Navajo creation story. The occasional sun-bleached sign left over from the Nation’s 2022 presidential election, most professing support for the winners, Dr. Buu Nygren and Richelle Montoya, dot the landscape.

Some of the homesteads have utility poles drawing electrical wiring to the house; others have a couple of solar panels, though solar typically doesn’t generate enough power to meet the average family’s needs. Some homes just stand alone, with no visible power source.

Nearly a century ago, much of America was like the Navajo Nation in its absence of electricity. In 1920, only 1% of U.S. homes had electricity. As city infrastructure developed, 9 out of 10 urban homes were electrified by the 1930s, but 90% of rural American farms remained off the grid.

In 1936, congress passed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act to bring electricity to rural America via low-cost federal loans leveraged to install electrical distribution systems. The Act cost a total of $550 million — or $10.3 billion in today’s money — and by 1950, 80% of U.S. farms were on the grid, and electricity became a harbinger of modern life.

The Electrification Act excluded tribal nations, and as U.S. infrastructure surged, it left in its wake inequities that persist in tribal nations today.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority was started in 1959. Today, it is the largest Native American-owned multi-utility enterprise, providing electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, solar energy, and communications services to 44,000 customers.

Installing electricity in a home on the Navajo Nation costs an average of $40,000, according to NTUA.

The mutual aid model of Light Up Navajo drives those costs down to under $8,000. The companies that end their volunteer linemen pay for their travel and labor. NTUA pays for their lodging and equipment.

On reservations, any infrastructure project more than a mile long that could disturb the land, such as public roads and highways, public water lines, fiber optics and electrical transmission and distribution lines, requires obtaining a federal right-of-way from the Department of Interior. A right of way (ROW) grants the right to use land for a designated purpose, creating a “non-possessory interest in the land.” The land title remains with the land owner — in the Navajo Nation’s case, the federal government — while the ROW is recorded and encumbered on the title. Applying for a right of way is an arduous and costly process, requiring environmental and archeological reports, surveys and assessments to be submitted with applications. The process can take anywhere from two years to more than a decade. A third of the cost of adding electricity infrastructure on the Navajo Nation lies in the acquiring right-of-ways from the federal government.

“It’s confusing to us that upon our own lands, we have to go through this process to provide life-essential services to our own people,” Becenti said.

More challenges

At the origin point of an 11-mile electrical line in Monument Valley, on the part of the reservation where Arizona meets Utah, a line has been in construction for 32 years and has been met with almost every issue such a project can encounter in Indian Country — multiple right-of-way acquisitions, funding issues, and equipment challenges — augers wear down at a faster rate than usual when met with the hard granite under the desert floor.

It’s unclear when it will be finished. When complete, it will electrify 23 homes. Today, it electrifies two.

Once complete, 3 miles of the line will run through Monument Valley National Park, which features towering sandstone ridges recognizable from the movie “Forest Gump” in scenes from the titular character’s years-long run.

Long lines like these are critical, as they serve as a tapping-off point — a mainline off of which shorter lines extend to homes.

“Sometimes our customers are frustrated with us, and that’s because they’ve waited for so long,” Vercnythia Charley, a district manager at NTUA and the first-ever Navajo women linemen, told Native News Online.

“We are challenged with a lot out here: How far we live from utilities. There aren’t a lot of jobs. Multi-generational households are living on a fixed income.”

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Volunteer crews from the Green River Dam Authority in Oklahoma erect electrical poles in Navajo Nation. (Photo/NTUA)

Charley grew up in Navajo Nation without electricity and understands what it’s like to “start another day at the end of your day,” coming home from work or school to chop wood, haul water, and heat it. As a young adult, she did what many Navajo in their early 20s do: She moved off of the reservation to go to school and then work, sending money back home to her family.

The unemployment rate in Navajo Nation hovers around the 50 percent mark. Young Navajo are often faced with the decision to move off the reservation for work to support their families. With that comes more career opportunities and higher salaries, but also the consequence of separating families, a move that is especially painful in a culture built around multi-generational living.

Getting electricity to more households on the reservation, paired with the federal government deploying billions into Indian Country for fiber broadband via the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, could result in remote education and work opportunities. This, Charley said, could allow younger family members access to off-reservation salary levels while staying on the reservation, preserving the family structure that is central to Navajo culture.

What’s at stake

In Steamboat, Arizona, a crew from Colorado erects electrical poles around a small homestead.

A young mom drives up, parks her car, and walks up to the group of linemen to ask them when her family’s home will be hooked up, pointing to a small dark blue ranch house 20 yards from where the crew is working.

Labina Nelson is a mom of six children, ranging in age from 10-24. She lived in a Navajo Housing Authority residence in To’Hajiilee until two years ago when she obtained a homesite lease to construct a one-story, three-bedroom house on her family’s homestead.

Nelson, her husband, and their kids built the house themselves. During the process, the eight of them lived in her mother’s one-room house, which sits yards away from their newly built home.

Like many Navajo families without electricity, the Nelsons don’t have access to refrigeration.

Nelson has two camping coolers she keeps food in for the family of eight. Three of her kids haul the coolers out to the front steps of their home, smile shyly, and shut the door. The coolers are empty today, and Labina has to make a run to the nearest store — a Sinclair gas station half a mile away — to stock up on food.

The ripple effects of not having refrigeration and relying on non-perishable foods for sustenance are far-reaching. The mortality rate on the Navajo Nation is 31% higher than the rest of the United States, with heart disease as the leading cause of death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half of the adult Navajo population is living with type 2 diabetes.

Recommendations for diabetes and heart disease are a diet of fresh, whole foods, which is a challenge when you don’t have access to refrigeration.

Sometimes, the Nelsons would use a generator to power the house, the cost of which could range anywhere from $20-$40 a day in gas. Turning the generator on and keeping it running is a hands-on job, Labina said, especially during the winter months when temperatures can drop to 15 degrees fahrenheit.

“It was hard in the winter when it gets cold, and when we get sick, it’s hard to get up and turn it on,” she said. “Especially when we had COVID.”

In Round Rock, the Shortys, too, used a generator to power their home. Jamie and her husband taught her three eldest sons how to use the generator, and they were preparing to teach their 7-year-old. But one day last winter, the generator broke when their 10-year-old son was trying to start it.

The family went three months without a generator and debated if they needed to get a new one.

“But then, the weekend we were going to get one, the (Light Up Navajo crew) came with electricity,” Jamie said.

The Chees

On a homestead in Tselani, Arizona, about 25 miles southwest of Chinle, Shirley Chee lives with her husband, brother and sister on land their great-great-grandfather left to their mother. When they were children, their father worked in Chinle as a janitor for the school, and their mother was a shepherd who kept a herd of 60 sheep.

Chee describes a childhood of her and her siblings doing their homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. They would ride to and from school with their father. During the monsoon season, the main road to the house would flood with mud, and they would leave their car on the road and run across the endless desert fields to get home. The family had a wood-burning stove; their mother would leave a pan of water on top of it to heat to use for washing.

The family would drive long distances to collect water in 55-gallon drums on the weekends. Their mother hung milk crates from the outside of the house to store food and keep it cold in the cool desert night and out of reach from the coyotes. They mostly ate canned food, and when her dad did bring meat home, it was cooked and eaten right away.

“It was frustrating at the time, but I was a child,” Chee, who is a caseworker for a child care center in Chinle, said. “But now I know how my mom and dad struggled.”

Around 30 years ago, Chee said, their mother and father began advocating for themselves at their local chapter house, asking for funding to bring electricity out to the remote homestead. But, they were told again and again that they were just too far from a mainline — the nearest was 20 miles — and the cost of the project wouldn’t be worth only providing electricity to one family. Decades passed, and their parents gave up under the weight of constantly being told “no.”

Their mother died in 2005, followed by their father in 2018.

Chee continued the fight to bring electricity to their homestead. She attended every chapter house meeting, educating herself on where the chapter funding was coming from and where every dollar was being spent, making a case for their homestead. Then, last year, she heard about Light Up Navajo. Volunteer linemen from South Carolina came to their homestead on a summer morning. That night, they turned on the breakers, and for the first time ever, the homestead sparkled under the evening sky.

It was a moment their parents, now deceased, had fought for for decades.

“We got our electricity turned on, and we were just crying,” Chee said.

The Chee’s kept the cable spool that held the wire crews used to hook up their homestead and use it as their kitchen table. It bears the signatures of the volunteer linemen who helped them finally turn on their lights.

When Chee describes the past year with electricity, she laughs at the lifelong habits she hasn’t quite shaken: stocking up on batteries and using flashlights at night instead of flipping a light switch.

“It’s bittersweet,” Chee said. “I wish our parents could see the house glowing at night, all lit up. They wouldn’t be able to believe it.”

What’s next

At the end of each week of Light Up Navajo, NTUA holds an appreciation dinner at a district headquarters. At the Chinle NTUA building, volunteer linemen and Navajo families share a meal of rib steak, baked potato adorned with a charred jalapeno, and a side salad.

The Shortys sit at a table in the back of the room, the young brothers wiggling in their seats. They punctuate the dinner with laughter as they tease each other and play with child-size plastic hardhats NTUA gave them to commemorate Light Up Navajo.

Ten linemen sit at a long table at the front of the room, the guests of honor. They have been working nearly around the clock all week, under the direction of NTUA supervisors, to hook up as many families as possible to electricity. Their skin is pink from the persistent desert sun, and all wear baseball caps with sunglasses perched on the bills.

The linemen, most of whom had never been on a reservation before, started their week with a cultural orientation held by NTUA. They learned about Navajo history, customs and beliefs and were given laminated cards with Navajo sayings on them, like “ahéhee’,” which means “thank you.”

They talk about how the week has affected them.

“First hearing about this, I thought about it as an opportunity to change lives,” one said. “But the takeaway is what you have taught us about your daily tasks and the things we don’t have to think about at home. We’ve heard from most families about the refrigerator situation — I’ve never thought about that in my life.”

Another speaks about working all day to hook up an elder’s house. The crew was determined to finish the job by the day’s end, but the man insisted they take a break and return the next day.

“He had been waiting years for electricity,” the lineman said. “And he was concerned about us getting too tired and needing to rest. Back home, people yell at you when their electricity is out for just a little bit.”

The linemen are the key to Light Up Navajo’s success, Becenti said. The more who volunteer, the more homes get hooked up, and the more lives change.

All of the linemen say they plan on returning to help for next year’s Light Up Navajo.

After dinner, the Shorty family shares how their week has been. Her 10-year-old son is excited to use his new waffle maker, and Jamie bought a crockpot. This weekend the family is looking forward to buying their first refrigerator.

Jamie plays a video on her phone from earlier in the week. The screen shows a dinner table from above. It’s dark, but one can see a pot of goulash and a plate of fry bread resting on the table. Her son’s voices chatter in the background when suddenly, light floods the video and the family cheers with excitement. Her oldest son had run around to each room in the house, turning all of the light switches into the “on” position.

“He said, ‘Mom!’” Jamie laughed. “‘When they turn the breakers on, the house is going to light up!’”

And it did.

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